NEW YORK -- Beneath gigantic tents created from the skirts of lavish women's dresses, erotic mischief is afoot at City Center.

John Malkovich frolics to the music of Mozart in "The Giacomo Variations," a playful, frothy production which was envisioned as "a chamber opera play" by its creators. Written and directed by Michael Sturminger, the lighthearted work is being briefly presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival at New York City Center.

Reading aloud from his memoirs, legendary Venetian seducer Giacomo Casanova (Malkovich, languid and sardonic) looks back at some of his most memorable 18th-century liasons. Now elderly and pondering the meaning of his existence, he supervises the enactment of his memories through a series of lively vignettes based on well-known duets and arias by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Madcap liasons and mischievous flirtations are based on opera scenes first created by Mozart and one of his librettists, Lorenzo Da Ponte, primarily from "Cosi Fan Tutte," "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Don Giovanni." The musical concept is by Martin Haselbock, who conducts the Orchester Wiener Akademie with distinction.

As the famously roguish Casanova, Malkovich bears an imperious and occasionally self-mocking air, whether eloquently philosophizing, wading into the action himself, or merely watching his younger self carouse.

Youthful opera singers Sophie Klussmann and Daniel Schmutzhard perform multiple roles, although Kirsten Blaise substituted for Klussman with great comedic flair and lovely singing in a recent performance. Baritone Schmutzhard brings robust vigor to the youthful Casanova. Ingeborga Dapkunaite brings a delicate maturity and sense of mystery to her primary role as a former acquaintance of Casanova who chides him for past misdeeds.

Or maybe that's not what she's doing. But the plot doesn't really matter; it's enough that the atmosphere is suffused with sensuality and amusement.

Sumptuous costumes and set design by Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser give a rich look to the production. Beautiful dresses and billowy layers of underclothing often litter the stage, casually discarded in the same way that the fickle Casanova left behind so many women after his conquests.



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